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The Great Oyo Empire

The Beginnings of Prince Oranmiyan

Oranmiyan was one of the youngest grandsons of Ooni (i.e., King) Oduduwa of the Ife Kingdom (present-day Southwest Nigeria). Oranmiyan was the foremost warrior prince and adventurer that the Ife Kingdom produced. According to Yoruba traditions, Oranmiyan’s adventurers took him to the Benin Kingdom in the southeast (present-day Nigeria) and to the Niger Valley in the northwest (present-day Nigeria). The Great Benin Kingdom and the Oyo Kingdom were founded by Oranmiyan. According to Edo traditions, the Edo (Benin Kingdom, present-day Southern Nigeria) people during Oranmiyan’s time were ruled by some ancient rulers known as the Ogiso, under whom the Edo country plunged into disorder. Some of the Edo leaders sent a messenger to the Ife Kingdom to help organize their country. The king of Ife, one of King Oduduwa’s successors according to Yoruba traditions responded by sending Prince Oranmiyan.

On arrival Oranmiyan was welcomed by some Edo leaders and resisted by others. After Oranmiyan suppressed the resistance, he established order and a new monarchy. After some years, Oranmiyan decided to leave the Edo country, because he felt the kingdom, known as Benin, should be ruled by an Indigenous Edo prince. Oranmiyan installed his son Ewuare as king, who was born by him, a Yoruba and one of his Edo wives. Ewuare, the young king of what is now known as Great Benin became the progenitor of the dynasty that led and developed the kingdom and made it the most powerful on the shores of West Africa.

Yoruba traditions confirm these Edo traditions, and warrior Prince Oranmiyan returned home to the Ife Kingdom as a great hero. Oranmiyan set out again, but this time he migrated northwestwards into the Oyo country. He desired to be a founder of a kingdom of his own, because when he arrived in Edo country, the kingdom was already in existence. What Oranmiyan did was to help reorganize the kingdom of Benin, established order, and a strong monarchy. Oranmiyan followed in the footsteps of his cousins who founded kingdoms of their own. He traversed the whole breadth of the Oyo country before he found a suitable place to settle, which was in the northwestern borderlands of the Oyo country, just south of the Niger Valley. This was an area where small Oyo settlements existed with a scatter of small neighboring Bariba and Nupe ethnic group or tribe settlements. When Oranmiyan unified some of the settlements in the area, he established his kingdom, the Oyo Kingdom. The title of the Oyo kings was the “Alaafin.” Some years later Oranmiyan returned to the Ife Kingdom, leaving his sons in charge of the Oyo Kingdom.

The Beginnings of King Sango

When Oranmiyan departed from the Oyo Kingdom, it was an extremely difficult period for the Oyo people because of threats from the Yoruba Owu Kingdom, and some stronger Bariba and Nupe groups overran the Oyo Kingdom and forced the Oyo’s to pay tribute. In fact, Alaafin Ajaka was displaced for some time by these enemies, but at last, he stepped aside and gave the Oyo throne to his brother, Sango, son of Oranmiyan’s Nupe wife, who was believed by the chiefs to be the more warlike prince. When Sango became king of the Oyo Kingdom, things began to improve because the secret of the military power of the Nupe and Bariba peoples was their use of cavalry. Sango embarked on buying horses from some of the Nupe, his mother’s people. When the Olowu, king of the Owu Kingdom sent officers to demand tribute, Sango refused to pay. The Olowu sent armies to subdue and force King Sango and the Oyo people to pay tribute, but Sango’s men decisively defeated the invaders and silenced the Owu threat for the last time.

After the Oyo’s victory over the Owu, Sango moved the base of the kingdom from Oko back to its original location. When the Bariba and Nupe attacked, Sango fought them fiercely and beat back attack after attack, capturing many horses in the process. King Sango’s life was filled with terrible battles and surprising victories that his subjects and enemies alike credited him with supernatural powers. Unfortunately, Sango died in the prime of his life, and one of the supernatural powers which he claimed himself was the power to make lightning. According to Oyo traditions, while demonstrating this power to his chiefs and courtiers one day, he accidently burnt down the palace. Either out of embarrassment or out of fear of his subjects, Sango took his own life. The Oyo people, out of gratitude for all Sango had done for the kingdom, deified him, giving his name to the God of thunder and lightning, and set up shrines and rituals for his worship. The cult of Sango became the special cult of the Oyo kings.

“At the bottom of patience, one finds heaven.” – Words of Wisdom from Yoruba Orisha God of Thunder and Lightning Sango

Source: Law, R. C. C.: The Oyo Empire, 1600-1836.A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977.

The Great Oyo Empire

The Oyo Kingdom is regarded in Yoruba traditions as one of the younger Yoruba kingdoms, and by the 17th century, the Oyo Kingdom became the greatest of all the Yoruba Kingdoms, because it was richer, stronger, and territorially very much larger than the other neighboring Yoruba kingdoms. By the 18th century, the capital city of the Oyo Kingdom was Katunga, which was the center of the kingdom that eventually turned into an empire, comprising most of northern and western Yorubaland, and substantial territories of non-Yoruba people like the Nupe, Bariba, and Aja ethnic groups or tribes. During the Oyo’s time of expansion, the armies of the Alaafin pushed far westwards beyond the Aja country and defeated at least one army of the Asante Kingdom in parts of present-day Republic of Togo. The Oyo Empire was the largest ever in the history of the tropical forests and grasslands of West Africa south of the Great Niger River.

Before the Oyo Kingdom became an empire, the kingdom was forced to endure many growing pains from neighboring ethnic groups or tribes. The location that the founders of the Oyo Kingdom chose turned out to be a difficult one. For instance, before the Oyo’s were able to establish roots, the small kingdom at the time was attacked relentlessly from many directions. The adversity the Oyo people faced were from principal enemies, such as the Bariba people of the Borgu country to the northwest, and the Nupe people of the northeast. Both adversaries of the Yoruba Oyo people were formidable peoples of the banks of the Niger River. The location chosen for the Oyo Kingdom was a very desirable spot because the oldest trade routes connected the trans-Niger grasslands and the forest of central West Africa across the Middle Niger. Many groups of people had some interest in the area, and this included various Bariba and Nupe groups, as well as the older Yoruba kingdom of Owu from the south.

The Oyo Kingdom, in its infancy agreed to pay tribute to the Bariba and Nupe peoples at certain times. The Oyo Kingdom was also threatened by the Yoruba Owu Kingdom, and the Oyo’s paid tribute the Olowu of the Owu Kingdom for some time. To survive, the Alaafin’s of the Oyo Kingdom realized the kingdom needed to be strong and be able to overcome and suppress its enemies. The Oyo people had learned from their enemies and built a solid military establishment that became the new terror of all its neighbors and conquered many kingdoms and peoples. The Oyo people also built great city walls, taking advantage of the natural defenses. The kingdom emerged and was widely regarded as impregnable by its neighbors. For over two centuries, no enemy came close to directly threatening the Oyo Kingdom. The region of the Oyo Kingdom was also one of the most favorable in terms of agriculture in West Africa. For example, the Oyo Kingdom was in the Yoruba savannah grasslands or savannah lowland with occasional low hills and rock outcrops. Its high points formed a watershed territory from which streams flowed either south to the Osun and other flowing rivers, or north to the Niger River, making the whole area a well-watered region. The soil of the Oyo Kingdom was among the most fertile in Yorubaland, as well as very prosperous farming, which made for rapid population increases in the Oyo Kingdom and Oyo country around it.

As early as the 15th century, the Oyo country was the most thickly populated part of Yorubaland and had its share of heavily populated cities and towns. Once the Alaafin established varying types of overlordships over kingdoms, cities, and towns of the Oyo country, he ruled over a large and prosperous area from which almost drew upon an endless number of men and resources into his armies. The Oyo armies grew bigger, and stronger until they became all conquering. The open grassland of the Oyo country and all the Yoruba and Aja countries to the west assisted the growth of the Oyo Empire. The Alaafin employed his armies with horses in the open grasslands, and the Oyo people came to control far-flung communications, establishing far-flung administrative and commercial networks, and sending armies to subdue and control very distant lands. It was from the north that the Alaafin got the horses which made the Oyo’s armies feared and respected by their neighbors. At the peak of the power of the Old Oyo Empire, its officials spread out from the Nupe country on the middle Niger all the way southwestwards to the coast of present-day Lagos State of Nigeria and Benin Republic, and westwards all the way into present-day Togo Republic.

The Fall of the Great Oyo Empire

By the middle of the 18th century, the Oyo Empire stood at the peak of its territorial greatness. The Oyo armies stood on the banks of the Niger River in the land of the Nupe people, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on the Mono River in the land of the Bariba people, and the land of the Aja and Ewe peoples. The capital and heart of the Oyo Empire was the Oyo Kingdom, and the kingdom boomed with a population larger than that of any other in the tropical African forests, with a volume of commerce far beyond that of any other city in the forest interior of West Africa. The Oyo Empire was where the sound of songs, music, dance, and theatre, with famous artists, artisans, and entertainers, with great priests and medicine men, with wealthy traders and proud warrior chiefs. The ruler of the Oyo Empire was the Alaafin, who glowed in glory, while at festivals women danced in the adoring streets and sang songs proclaiming the Alaafin as oriaiye i.e., the head, or apex, of the world.

By the end of the 18th century, the Oyo Empire disintegrated and in the fourth decade of the 19th century the empire collapsed completely. The total collapse of the Oyo Empire was by 1835, and the Great Oyo Kingdom was abandoned and desolate. According to Dr. Stephen Adebanji Akintoye, author of A History of the Yoruba People, historians will long debate and search for the cause of the strange, almost sudden, disaster that happened to the Oyo Empire.

The beginnings of the troubles are traditionally traced to the 18th century, but the 19th century was a century of tumultuous happenings. Starting from the Oyo part of Yorubaland and the other Yoruba kingdoms that had been parts of the Oyo Empire. Wars had swept through the whole country of Yorubaland, and a whole array of demographic, economic, social, and political developments, and changes. From about the second decade of the 19th century, the religion of Islam, which existed in some parts of Yorubaland had spread faster than before. From the middle of the 19th century, (Western) Christianity penetrated Yorubaland by Christian missions.

The disintegration of the Oyo Empire and Kingdom destroyed the pre-existing system of order and security in Yorubaland and created a situation where all centers of power, old and new, had to scramble to establish new systems and patterns that would guarantee order and security. For two full centuries prior to the 19th century, the Oyo Empire had exercised powerful influences for peace in Yorubaland, both directly and indirectly. For instance, indirectly, the Oyo Kingdom plus the Yoruba kingdoms apart of the Oyo Empire, amounted to a very substantial part of Yorubaland, about half of the whole Yoruba country and half of its total population. For two centuries, the Alaafin’s rule enjoyed an orderly government, peace, prosperity, and pride. The Alaafin’s domains laid down the standard of order and peace and encouraged and guaranteed order and peace in Yorubaland. Directly, the Alaafin’s interventions in disputes within and between Yoruba kingdoms beyond his own domains was usually succeeded in maintaining or restoring peace. The Alaafin’s name and aura was great and was used to uphold order and peace in Yorubaland.

Yoruba people commonly said nobody could ever get more fortunate than the Alaafin and a Yoruba person who was bragging about the Alaafin’s fame and popularity would use the hyperbole, “Alaffin Oyo mo mi,” which translated in English means “the Alaafin of Oyo knows me.”

The Fall of Yorubaland

The country of the Yoruba people (Yorubaland, parts of present-day Southwest Nigeria, Benin and Togo).

When the Great Oyo Empire fell in Yorubaland, a major pillar of peace in Yorubaland fell with it. The disruptions and violence in the Oyo homeland were produced throughout the rest of Yorubaland. There were reports of terrible conflicts among the princes of the Oyo country, of blasted towns and villages, and massive flights of people from their homes and their towns. Alaafin after Alaafin isolated themselves and were helpless in their own palace while Oyo princes destroyed their country. By the middle of the second decade of the 19th century, refugees from the Oyo country began to arrive in the rest of Yorubaland, especially in the Yoruba middle belt. These Oyo people were frightened, and many of them were detached from family and loved ones, destitute, having lost all the substance of their earthly labor, and often were violent by desperation. There were thousands and tens of thousands of Yoruba Oyo people in this hopeless position. There were some highly placed Oyo citizens who were able to flee in some order, but they were not the majority, because most of the Oyo people were poor and vulnerable when the empire fell.

While Yorubaland was preoccupied with wars with Yoruba kingdoms fighting amongst each other, foreign neighbors, first the Nupe and then Dahomey took advantage and repeatedly invaded Yorubaland.

Kurunmi of the Yoruba Ijaye Kingdom, was said to have been the greatest Yoruba general during the troubled times following the fall of the Oyo Empire. The Ijaye Kingdom evolved into a state without a king. Kurunmi quickly built the Ijaye Kingdom into a well-ordered city with a formidable military machine. The Ijaye Kingdom eventually grew into a military dictatorship ruled by Kurunmi, who was much loved, and adored by his people. Much has survived in the traditions about Kurunmi. He was one of the most resourceful generals of the 19th century in Yoruba history. He was fond of illuminating his speeches with colorful proverbs. He also loved to sing and dance, and when he got excited, he would couch his proverbs in songs and dance to them. Kurunmi was impulsive by nature, and as he grew old that trait seem to worsen, but he never ceased being a great military commander and leader of men.

During the turbulent Yoruba wars of the 19th century, the most powerful refugee states in Yorubaland were Abeokuta, Ibadan, Ijaye and Oyo, and the Islamic kingdom of Ilorin in the north, which became one of the most powerful states of the Yoruba people. In 1854, a high-powered meeting of leaders of Ibadan, Ijaye, Abeokuta and Ijebu was held in Ibadan to decide to put an end to all wars and cease selling Yoruba people as slaves to Europeans. Although these decisions were taken, but no positive results followed, because Yorubaland was nothing but widespread destruction of cities, towns, and villages. For some 700 years the Yoruba people had built cities and towns all over Yorubaland, and in a course of one century they destroyed many of the biggest and the best of them. For example, areas affected were the territories of Oyo, Egba and Owu.

The great kingdom of Oyo for two centuries was the greatest and most prestigious of the Yoruba people, which had perished completely. There was great human suffering in Yorubaland because the wars were grave. The endless battles and raids resulted in the scattering of countless lineages and families. Persons torn from their roots and homes, and wandering without clear destinations, constituted a large pool of vulnerable targets for criminal kidnappers in most parts of Yorubaland. The intense distress the Yoruba people felt during this time bred disloyalty, even the sale of friends by friends for the Transatlantic slave trade. In many parts of the Yoruba country, there were also some hopes of togetherness because refugee settlements sprang up, and each displayed the scene of the challenging time and struggles by individual and groups trying to survive. The traditional norm of respect for peaceful traders on highways survived in many parts of Yorubaland.

The Yoruba people were not able to end the wars amongst themselves in Yorubaland, and the wars only ended when European powers intervened and imposed their own system of order, security, and peace. As European political influence grew by the end of the 19th century, their imperial rule was over all Yoruba people. The closing act of the 19th century was the imposition of British rule over most of Yorubaland in present-day Nigeria, French rule in the present-day Benin Republic, and German (later French) rule in the present-day Togo Republic. As the 20th century opened, all Yoruba people, like all other peoples of tropical Africa, were subjects of European imperialist overlords.

Nigeria officially became a colony of Great Britain in 1914, and this legitimized the presence of British people of the southern part of Nigeria since the 19th century. Politically, many factions of the Yoruba territories and other neighboring ethnic groups or tribes were unified by Great Britain’s new colony, Nigeria. The British colonization of the country that became Nigeria marked the beginning of (Western) Christianity’s major influence in Nigeria. This resulted in a gradual decline of Yoruba traditional beliefs and practices. After the second World War, prominent African figures in Nigeria began to rally for independence. Nigeria was declared independent of British rule and overlordship October 1, 1960.


Akintoye, S. A History of the Yoruba People. Amalion Publishing (Jan 1, 2010). April 8, 2022. p. cover, 135, 144, 185-186, 342-347, 349-350, 390-391, 432-434, 440, 443, 454, 476-478, 526, 528, 564.

Asikiwe, J. The Ancient Orishas: Yoruba Tradition, Sacred Rituals, The Divine Feminine, and Spiritual Enlightenment of African Culture and Wisdom. Melanin House Production (Feb. 20, 2021). March 12, 2022. p. 10-11.

Aye, O. God’s Mysteries: Lwas and Orishas. African Output LC; 1st edition (Nov. 29, 2017). April 8, 2022. p. 84, 86.

Babarinsa, D. The restless children of Oranmiyan. The Guardian. April 25, 2019. April 8, 2022.

Rodney, W. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Verso (Nov. 27, 2018). April 8, 2022. p. 134-135.

Wikipedia. Yoruba people. April 8, 2022.

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